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Energetic fantasies

Letter from Ken Jessen

Energy – January 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine


I love letters like the one written by Stephen Glover which ran in the December 2007 issue ofColorado Central. We need creative thinking to solve our energy crisis, but we also need realistic solutions. To add to Glover’s popular myths is that we can run our automobiles and SUVs on ethanol.

It is obvious that petroleum is a non-renewable resource, and the recovery of crude oil is becoming increasingly expensive. The latest oil field discovered in the Gulf of Mexico will require reaching depths of nearly 30,000 feet and an investment of over one-hundred million dollars. The price of a barrel of crude oil has been doubling every two years and is now approaching $100, and depending on demand, gasoline is expected to approach or exceed $6 a gallon within two years. Many experts have predicted that we have reached peak worldwide petroleum production, while others feel it is only a few years away. Adding to the dilemma are the developing nations of India and China, with billions of people and tens of thousands of new automobiles added every year.

Growing our way out of energy dependency on imported oil has become a popular idea, however, the United States does not have enough farmland to fully replace gasoline through the production of corn-based ethanol. Using figures from the agricultural industry, to fully replace gasoline would require a land area of 565 thousand square miles under cultivation or all of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and part of Alabama. We would then have to import our food.

Flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) are being manufactured by Detroit-based automobile companies. They can run on conventional gasoline or on a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The government gives them fuel-economy credits for every FFV built even if consumers never use the E85 blend. There are a number of flaws with this strategy. It provides incentive to continue to produce low mileage vehicles rather than ones that conserve petroleum-based fuel. Added to this is the fact that there is substantially less energy in ethanol than in gasoline. A gallon of gasoline contains 115,400 BTUs in contrast with only 75,670 BTUs for ethanol. In tests conducted recently by Consumers Union on a large SUV, mileage was about 27% lower using E85. If the price of gasoline is $3 a gallon, then to come out even using E85, consumers should pay 27 percent less for the ethanol blend. Such is not the case, and where E85 is abundant in the Midwest, it has been trading on par with gasoline making it a far more expensive alternative. In all fairness, however, it may be a supply-side problem where there simply are not enough ethanol plants. There are also delivery limitations with E85. Ethanol absorbs water from the air and must be sealed from the atmosphere. On the positive side, ethanol emits less smog-producing pollutants than gasoline.

There are no easy answers as we move into the post-petroleum era.

Gasoline is simply difficult to replace as a fuel. There is nothing cheaper or more effective than abandoning gas hogs and purchasing a high gas mileage vehicle. Automobile manufacturers have been quite clever using technology such as variable valve timing and even engines that drop cylinders when cruising down the highway.

Hybrid automobiles have become quite popular, but are limited by their battery storage capacity. Going up long grades, the energy stored from braking is quickly used up and the internal combustion engine comes on. Now you are back to using petroleum. Batteries are also expensive to replace. Hybrids tend to work best in stop and go situations where braking energy is recovered, then supplied back for acceleration. Newer hybrid vehicles that can be plugged into an electrical outlet and charged overnight may become available. All that does is shift energy needs to our power plants.

The future is bleak, and innovation is our only salvation.

Kenneth Jessen